In this Parsha the nation cries out for water and G-d instructs Moshe to speak to a particular rock so that it should miraculously bring forth water. Moshe, however, takes his staff and strikes the rock instead of just speaking to it. G-d then says to Moshe and Aharon: “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.”
Numerous commentators attempt to explain why Moshe’s action resulted in the drastic punishment of being denied entry into the Land of Israel, the ultimate goal of the Exodus from Egypt. Abarbanel summarizes ten different answers to this question and rejects them all as insufficient reasons for such a drastic punishment. Instead, Abarbanel offers a novel solution to the problem.
He says that really they were being punished for two much more serious previous transgressions. Aharon was punished for his role in the incident of the Golden Calf, and Moshe for his role in sending and instructing the men who spied out the Land of Israel. Even though Aharon certainly tried to prevent idolatry, his actions ultimately led to the tragedy of the death of thousands. Just as these individuals were prevented from entering the Land, Aharon too — following the principle of measure for measure — was prevented from entering the Land as well.
Moshe’s transgression was that he essentially went beyond the simple request of the people to “send men ahead of us and let them spy out the Land, and bring word back to us; the road on which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come.” Moshe, however, added his own instructions to their simple request, telling them to find out if the inhabitants were strong or weak, few or numerous, and if the cities were open or fortified. Even though Moshe’s intention was to impress upon them G-d’s ability to overcome any adversary no matter how strong, this still gave them the opening to doubt their ability to conquer the Land. The result of course was mass panic, and once again G-d invoked the principle of measure for measure: just as the nation no longer merited the Land of Israel, so too Moshe was denied the opportunity to lead it into the Land.
Although it appears that G-d is punishing them for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, in reality they are being punished for their previous transgressions. However, in order to protect their honor G-d covers up the real reasons. Abarbanel compares this to a father who, because of his love for his son, ignores his transgressions until a relatively minor incident causes him to come down hard. When asked, “Why such a drastic punishment for such a minor infraction?” he will answer that the punishment is for all the other serious transgressions he can no longer ignore as a result of this final, minor infraction. In the case of Moshe and Aharon, the incident with the rock and the water was the catalyst to actualize the potential punishment.
Abarbanel brings numerous proofs to his interpretation. Included among them is the fact that in Sefer Devarim Moshe does not mention this incident at all, attesting to its relatively minor importance. Furthermore, in Sefer Devarim Moshe and Aharon’s punishments are both mentioned in the context of the incidents of the Golden Calf and the Spies. Also, since Aharon had no involvement in the incident of the water and the rock other than assisting Moshe in gathering the people, it is illogical to think that this would result in such a drastic punishment. Finally, when G-d declares that the generation of the wilderness would not enter the Land of Israel, He excludes only Kalev and Yehoshua. Moshe and Aharon are included in the decree, even prior to the incident of the water and the rock.